Trivial is as trivial does - and trivial does remarkably little for the Roundabout Theater Company's inexplicable revival last night of John Van Druten's 1940 comedy "Old Acquaintance."
Despite the amiable promptings of "Auld Lang Syne," this is an auld acquaintance best forgot, if never even met. It's hardly a play panting for resuscitation.
It's hard to believe anyone would want to take it out of drama's attic of discard, and, even after dusting it off, not have put it back or send it - with little hope and less charity - to the Salvation Army.
This production, with its lavishly appointed settings by Alexander Dodge and cannily researched period costumes by David C. Woolard, looks like a mix between real estate ads and, complete with hair and wig designs by Paul Huntley, a brochure for a carefully curated costume museum.
The story concerns the jealousy-tinged relationship between two famous writers originally from the same small town: one, a modest-selling critics' darling named Katherine "Kit" Markham; the other, a best-selling beach-read hack, Mildred Watson Drake.
Katherine has a younger lover, Rudd, who wants to marry her but who later falls in love-at-first-kiss with Deirdre, Mildred's daughter, whom Mildred - a crazily awful woman - believes Kit is trying to take away from her.
Meanwhile, Kit, who'd turned Rudd down, decides she'd like a summer/autumn marriage after all. (Is that clear? Do you care?)
Margaret Colin as the sophisticated yet kindly Kit does everything that could be done for the role short of pulling down the curtain and letting the audience go home, while Corey Stoll is perfectly agreeable as Rudd, the young man with the interchangeable heartstrings.
Harriet Harris tends to make exaggeration her special style of acting (she was the relentless agent Bebe Glazer on TV's "Frasier"), so the already preposterous role of Mildred does her no favors. She does have one fantastic piece of business with a telephone, which is the night's one bright moment.
Michael Wilson's staging is so stilted that it permits Diane Davis, as Mildred's ditsy daughter and Stephen Bogardus as her determined ex-husband, to give the two worst performances of the season.
As "Old Acquaintance" is the very first play of the 2007/08 season perhaps that doesn't mean much, but they set a standard that might be difficult to lower.
The awesome aspect of the play is that an English-born playwright could conceive such twaddle when Adolf Hitler was separated from the destruction of Western civilization by just 22 miles of the English Channel.
Two very different roads to the past are being traveled by two very different actresses in the Roundabout Theater Company’s mildly entertaining, maddeningly disjunctive revival of “Old Acquaintance,” John Van Druten’s 1940 comedy of high-heeled and round-heeled sexual mores in literary Manhattan.
Playing combative best friends of long standing, Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris share a stage and star billing in the handsomely upholstered production that opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, directed by Michael Wilson. But they are living in different time zones.
Ms. Colin comfortably inhabits the era in which the play is set; she makes the decades fall away. Ms. Harris presents the same world through the perspective of a contemporary comedian who has watched a lot of old movies; she makes a distant age look even more distant. Fans of fine-grained acting will admire Ms. Colin, while fans of diva-spoofing drag queens may well adore Ms. Harris.
Both approaches offer insight into a period piece that turns out to have accumulated less mold than you might expect. But seen in close proximity, they cancel each other out.
That’s too bad. As written, “Old Acquaintance,” which is best known for the 1943 film version starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, has the surprising charm of a decades-old best seller you might come upon in your grandmother’s library. You pick it up to skim, thinking it could be a hoot, and then it hooks you with the wit and craftsmanship that define its vintage as much as its setting does.
Such a point of view, that of the gentle reader, is the one Ms. Colin brings to the proceedings. This fine, underused New York actress, last seen here in John Patrick Shanley’s “Defiance,” plays Katherine Markham, known as Kit (the Bette Davis part), a worldly middle-aged novelist in Greenwich Village of slim but critically acclaimed output and rather more love affairs. (Katherine Anne Porter comes to mind.)
Ms. Harris is Mildred Watson Drake (the Miriam Hopkins role), a wildly prolific, commercially successful writer of pulpy romances (imagine Danielle Steel in seamed stockings) who lives in suburban splendor with her pretty 19-year-old daughter, Deirdre (Diane Davis).
Though Kit and Milly have been closest chums since their shared girlhood in Harrisburg, Pa., there has always been friction. The detached, amused Kit and the flamboyant, high-strung Milly are temperamental as well as artistic opposites. Their differences clash and explode in “Old Acquaintance” over their rival claims to Deirdre’s heart and destiny as she comes of age.
Deirdre, it seems, is wondering whether it’s time for her to take a lover. And “Old Acquaintance” is refreshingly straightforward on the feelings this inspires in Kit. “I had a lover when I was her age, and I still don’t want her to,” Kit tells her current flame, Rudd Kendall (Corey Stoll), a young man in publishing considerably her junior. “All right, I’m inconsistent. I contradict myself. So did Walt Whitman.”
As she demonstrated in her disarming portrait of a monster movie star in “Sweet Bird of Youth” at Williamstown last summer, Ms. Colin is a virtuoso of textures of ambivalence. She presents characters who act one way, think another and feel, deep down, another way altogether.
This aptitude dispels any clouds of quaintness that might envelop Kit, and the play feels grounded in actuality whenever Ms. Colin is in charge of the stage.
Far more persuasively than Bette Davis (who was always a bit starchy in her sacrificial roles), she delivers Mr. Van Druten’s epigrammatic dialogue with the air of someone for whom shapely language is as essential a prop as gloves or a cigarette.
That dialogue, by the way, is often quite piquant without the heavily perfumed sophistication of, say, Philip Barry or S. N. Behrman. (The play’s best line, delivered when Deirdre asks Kit what she really thinks of Milly’s writing: “I have dreaded this moment from the day you learned to read.”)
Ms. Harris has become a droll and stylish caricaturist in musicals like “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (for which she won a Tony) and “Mame” (at the Kennedy Center). And the vain, self-dramatizing Milly brings out her archest comic excesses. Hysteria, drunkenness, spitefulness all come with exaggerated punctuation.
The sum effect is of a comment on a character rather than a portrait of one. This is sometimes very funny, in the way Carol Burnett is when she sends up Gloria Swanson or Joan Crawford. But it’s as if Milly is a visiting entertainer in Kit’s world, not part of the fabric of it.
The other performers search for a middle ground between these extremes with varied results. Mr. Stoll is sympathetic and eminently presentable, which is all his part requires, but Ms. Davis appears bizarrely to be channeling Sandra Dee, that professional virgin of the late 1950s.
If only everyone could stay on the same page. “Old Acquaintance” has the potential to be a tasty slice of summer chick lit, with its sumptuous sets (by Alexander Dodge) and expensive-looking costumes (David C. Woolard).
But it’s all too revealing that the scene for which the movie is most famous almost passes beneath the radar here. That’s when Kit, having finally had enough of Milly’s selfishness, takes her by the shoulders and shakes her. It is hard, of course, for a moment of physical contact to have much impact when you feel that the participants have been spliced together from mismatched celluloid strips.
Catfights are a dime a dozen these days. Open up a tabloid or tune into a reality or talk show, and you're likely to witness a couple of women clawing at each other.
There was a time, though, long before Rosie and Elisabeth or Paris and Nicole had at it, when the feline grudge match could be a modest art form, practiced by women of wit and relative discretion.
OK, so some of these confrontations were staged, literally — with playwrights (a good number of them male) fashioning the verbal blows. But the gals throwing the jabs made such capable and classy contenders that no one dared challenge their authority.
John van Druten's Old Acquaintance (* * * out of four), the tasty chestnut now being revived by the Roundabout Theatre Company, provided such a forum for actresses Jane Cowl and Peggy Wood when it opened on Broadway in 1940. Three years later, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins duked it out in a screen adaptation.
In this new production, which opened Thursday at the American Airlines Theatre, Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris respectively inherit the roles of Kit Markham, a respected author and confirmed bachelorette, and her lifelong friend/rival Milly Drake, a divorcée and prolific purveyor of "beach reads." Kit, despite her less conventional lifestyle, which includes a young lover, is actually the sensible, grounded one, but Milly frets when her teenage daughter develops a worshipful relationship with her old buddy.
It's unimaginable that there could be a more ideal Kit than the criminally undervalued Colin, who at 50 exudes the kind of unfussy beauty and poise that will no doubt continue to ripen. It's easy to envision Milly, whose former husband tells her that she "can't bear the idea of anyone else having something you haven't got," being envious of this less settled but more effortlessly intriguing woman.
Harris' role is flashier, and, predictably, the actress indulges in the kind of hammy histrionics that will make her a hit with matinee crowds. But she and Colin also reveal the abiding affection that make Milly and Kit more convincing and interesting as a dueling duo than most of their contemporaries.
Director Michael Wilson also coaxes period-savvy performances out of the winning Corey Stoll, as Kit's beau, and Diane Davis and Stephen Bogardus, as Milly's daughter and ex.
The material does show its age, certainly more than its heroines would wish to show theirs. But even at its most quaint, van Druten's play reminds us that women of civility and substance can be formidable sparring partners.
There are plenty of old-fashioned plays that can still sparkle onstage, but "Old Acquaintance" is probably not high on that list. Despite the handsome upholstery of Michael Wilson's Broadway revival for Roundabout, John van Druten's 1940 drawing-room comedy about the long-running friendship/rivalry between two successful authors is mildly diverting but rarely much more. The comic verve of Harriet Harris and the elegance of her co-star and foil, Margaret Colin, make the three acts pass painlessly, but the play's catfight lacks claws just as its lovefest struggles to summon warmth.
A London-born transplant to the U.S., van Druten was a prolific supplier of light Broadway fodder through the 1940s and early '50s. But his plays are now better remembered for the film adaptations they spawned, among them "Bell, Book and Candle," "I Remember Mama" and "I Am a Camera," which later evolved into "Cabaret."
In its 1943 screen version, "Old Acquaintance" was an entertaining example of the Warner Bros. women's pictures of the '40s, elevated by juicy performances from Bette Davis and an over-the-top Miriam Hopkins. It was remade in 1981 as "Rich and Famous," a lackluster swansong for director George Cukor, but a minor guilty pleasure rescued from self-serious tedium by Candice Bergen's campy turn as a Southern author of trashy bestsellers.
Harris provides similar relief here with her precision timing, nonchalantly serving up bitchy backhanders while balancing self-aggrandizing hauteur with tantrum-prone, infantile neediness. But despite the amusing bravado, it's a one-note characterization, constrained by stale writing.
Kit (Colin) and Milly (Harris) have been best friends since college. Kit is a critics' darling with a small but highly regarded output of novels that have generated modest sales. She never married, but has had a string of lovers, the latest being Rudd (Corey Stoll), a devoted and personable staffer from her publishing company, 10 years her junior.
Milly churns out one lurid novel a year, which flies off the shelves but earns minimal respect in the literary world. She has a broken marriage behind her and a free-spirited late-teen daughter, Deirdre (Diane Davis), anxious to cut the apron strings.
Van Druten's principal theme is how while romance and even family ties can disappoint, the bonds of true friendship remain indestructible even between mismatched opposites.
Those bonds are tested by Milly's consuming envy. Despite being swathed in fur and financial success, she resents Kit's critical acclaim and is infuriated by her close relationship with the increasingly uncontrollable Deirdre, who looks to Kit as a role model. When Milly learns that ex-husband Preston (a stiff Stephen Bogardus) fell in love with her best friend and wanted to run off with her during a low point in their marriage, she turns on Kit. This creates complications with Rudd, just as Kit is coming around to the idea of marrying him.
Wilson keeps the play motoring along briskly enough, yet the production strains to find its groove, exposing the material's flimsiness. It's never quite as much fun as it should be.
That shortcoming is mirrored in Colin's performance. A poised, intelligent actress who wears David C. Woolard's classy '40s wardrobe with style, her Kit is a New York sophisticate with a fabulous Village apartment, a well-stocked liquor cabinet and a tasty young lover drooling over her. But she's sober and understated to the point of being dull. And the writing only casually explores the pathos of a woman who has drifted from romance to romance without ever finding happiness.
The other problem is Davis' irritatingly shrill Deirdre, making it hard to fathom why this tiresome girl commands so much attention, let alone prompts Stoll's effortlessly charming Rudd to redirect his affections.
Designer Alexander Dodge milks the contrast between the two main characters, locating Kit in a chic, book- and tchotchke-lined bohemian garret with a massive window overlooking Washington Square, while Milly takes up residence in an ostentatious Park Avenue sublet, all antiseptic mottled pink walls and white marble.
Harris sweeps through her gilded domain in overdressed splendor, spitting out barbed pleasantries, fishing for compliments or working herself up into outraged hysterics whenever she feels wronged -- which is most of the time. Milly answering the phone in the middle of an apoplectic aria is a sublime bit of physical comedy. But the character is basically a self-absorbed sidekick promoted to lead status.
In this production, at least, the play never really gives either woman a chance. It's hard to invest much in the survival of a friendship when one character is a joyless drag and the other a gauche, tactless monster.